Nineteen eighty-six never seemed as far away as it did when I rewatched My Beautiful Laundrette. What I remembered most fondly about Stephen Frears’ film is the sexual relationship between Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), the former school chum Omar hires to do his dirty work after his uncle gives him a laundromat to manage. The film’s straight-ahead treatment of that relationship, which is neither pathologized nor played for titillation but simply shown as a fact of both boys’ lives, was a boundary that still needed busting in those days. It made Laundrette an instant classic for me, one of those movies that validates your life experience and worldview at a point when it needs validating, making you feel as if you are not just seeing but being seen as you watch it. Seen now, without that brave-new-world charge, the sex scenes seem a little stagey and the chemistry between Omar and Johnny feels lame—especially in the final scene where the two splash water on each other’s bare chests, as self-conscious as bad actors in a porno.
Screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, like Omar, is a native Englishman with an Indian father and an English mother, and his insider’s perspective on the pain of assimilation was also pretty new—and much needed—when the movie came out. I remember absorbing what his screenplay had to say about the xenophobia and cultural dislocation endured by Indian immigrants in Maggie Thatcher’s England almost as if I were watching a Frontline documentary. Now that that perspective is no longer so rare in our media universe, what stands out for me is the didacticism of the script’s expository dialogue. Omar’s Indian relatives are forever making declamatory statements like: “In this damn country, which we hate and love, you can get anything you want. It’s all spread out and available. … You have to know how to squeeze the tits of the system.” Even one of Johnny’s ignorant, Paki-bashing friends gets into the act, warning him: “Don’t cut yourself off from your own people…everyone needs to belong.”
The music is annoyingly insistent too, and the costumes a little too on-the-nose (I get that Omar’s uncle’s English mistress is a working girl aspiring to the good life, but wouldn’t she take off her fur sometime?), and sometimes Frears and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton try too hard to wring meaning out of the visuals, like when they line up Johnny and Omar on either side of a window so one boy’s face merges with the other’s reflection. That rawness makes the film feel as adolescent as its protagonists at times, but it also has pockets of wisdom and an underlying emotional honesty that resonate still.
Day-Lewis had been acting for a while when he made Laundrette, but it was the one-two punch of his Johnny in this film and his Cecil in A Room With a View (the two films opened on the same day in New York) that made my head, like a lot of other people’s, snap in his direction. Cecil was one of those repressed, effete imperial English prigs you love to hate, but Johnny you just love, period. First glimpsed through the scrim of a dirty transom, a taciturn tough guy with a world of pain in his eyes and a shock of platinum-blond hair rising up from his black roots, he’s the kind of self-raised, semi-feral kid nobody expects much from, but Day-Lewis invests him with a quiet conviction that signals intelligence, self-discipline, and a hard-won sense of morality. Before reuniting with Omar, Johnny had been the leader of a pack of rude-boy neo-fascists, but he’s through with that life. He wants to be done with fighting altogether, but other people—including Omar—keep pulling him back in. When trouble erupts in Omar’s laundromat, Day-Lewis’ wiry body cycles through reluctance and resignation before switching to total commitment as he flings himself into the fray.
Omar seems to be heading in the opposite direction from Johnny as he climbs past him on the socioeconomic ladder, shedding his good-boy baggage along the way. Unfortunately, Warnecke is too much of a white swan to inhabit Omar’s dark side convincingly, so he leaves one of the movie’s central questions unanswered: Does Omar love Johnny or is he just manipulating him, interested only in getting rich and getting revenge?
Plenty of other actors are wonderful to watch, though, creating whole characters in scant minutes of screen time. Roshan Seth is elegantly world-weary as Omar’s father, a celebrated journalist gone to seed since moving to England, where he can’t find a job. Saeed Jaffrey is alternately oily and empathetic as Omar’s businessman uncle. Shirley Anne Field has a touching dignity as the uncle’s mistress, and Rita Wolf invests the underwritten role of his daughter with a kind of ferocious frustration.
Whenever any of them or Day-Lewis is on the screen, My Beautiful Laundrette springs back to life, a Petri dish of English culture wriggling with thwarted ambition, dreams deferred, and good intentions gone awry.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She writes about movies for The L Magazine andTimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play.